Police Advisory Commission must cut through backlog of complaints

Ronda Goldfein, newly elected chairwoman of the PAC
Ronda Goldfein, newly elected chairwoman of the PAC
Posted: March 12, 2012

THE POLICE Advisory Commission is often described as a toothless, civilian-run police oversight board without the authority to do anything.

The PAC is only able to make recommendations to the Police Department in response to citizen complaints - something it's done just 21 times since 1994.

In January, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey accepted a recommendation that officers brush up on guidelines about obtaining search warrants after two cops illegally entered a Frankford house in 2010.

It was the commission's first published opinion since 2007.

"This commission can do some thorough research and can issue a strong recommendation and the commissioner can say go to hell and that's the end of it," said criminal defense attorney Michael Coard, who has publicly criticized the PAC as ineffectual. He suggested that members should resign in protest until Mayor Nutter gives them more authority.

"Not only is it toothless, it's worse than that. A counterproductive something is worse than a clear nothing."

Ronda Goldfein, who was elected to chair the PAC last month, is pushing the agency to determine what's tying up investigations in hopes of making the PAC more relevant.

"We need a more efficient complaint procedure to speed up the backlog, get through the backlog and get things to panel if that's where they belong," Goldfein said, adding that it's not yet clear whether the workload is simply too heavy for the commission's small investigative staff, or if other factors are at play.

Is it about money?

While Goldfein and the other volunteer members of the PAC try to fix the agency, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is working on a bill that would overhaul it.

Jones, whose proposal has been stalled - it's faced with opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, and questions from the Nutter administration - announced in January that he would introduce legislation to make the PAC permanent and give it more independence.

But members of the PAC itself are divided on whether they deem themselves worthy of the changes.

"We have become ineffective in managing complaints that citizens bring to us," said James Crumlish III, a PAC commissioner and attorney with the firm Elliott Greenleaf. "We have to focus on doing our job better. I think that's what PAC should be focused on first, then permanency. That's a matter of merit."

PAC's budget has dropped by 30 percent since 2000 to about $275,000 for this year, but it has gotten a slight increase in recent years as most other city department and agencies saw cutbacks.

The budget is provided by the managing director's office, while Jones would allow the PAC to petition the court if Council didn't provide it with adequate funding.

According to William Johnson, executive director of the PAC, the commission needs more money.

"Without that nothing will improve," he said. "The work exceeds the manpower to do it."

The PAC has subpoena power, which it uses to obtain medical records, interview officers and request that officers appear at hearings. But with just two full-time investigators, the PAC has a backlog of 129 cases, including some that date back to 2008.

Goldfein, who is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said 109 cases on the backlog are more than a year old, and commission guidelines state they should be automatically closed unless Johnson can come up with a reason to continue.

"We're not really serving the complainant by pretending that something's happening if nothing's happening," she said. "It pains me that complainants came forward and took the time to do this, and we have to close their complaints because of age - but we need to be realistic."

Some commissioners say that the PAC has taken on more than it can handle, pointing to police-involved shootings, homicides and cases with pending criminal investigations, which prohibit closing the case since the commission has to wait for the District Attorney or Internal Affairs Bureau to complete its own investigation."Maybe police-involved shootings are too big, too complicated and too beyond our skill set and we're better redirecting the [investigators] to work on the things that they need to work on," Goldfein said.

"I think it's a mistake that, because it takes time, to dismiss it," Johnson said. "If we don't address that, where do [complainants] go? In the absence of that we go back to policing in the '60s."

Making it stronger

Mayor Nutter was one of the most enthusiastic backers of setting up the PAC when he was a city councilman, at a time when civil judgments and settlements against the city in police-misconduct or abuse cases exceeded $10 million a year.

It was created by an executive order from then-Mayor Ed Rendell in 1994.

In 2005, the city's office of integrity and accountability - which was responsible for conducting audits of the Police Department - was shuttered and PAC's mission suddenly expanded as it assumed the role of auditor.

"That's what people don't realize," said former PAC Chair Robert Nix. "That's the amazing thing, what the commission did with a limited budget."

Nix said that a permanent police-oversight agency would always be needed, and Nutter often expressed the importance of that when he was a councilman.

Everett Gillison, Nutter's chief of staff, said the administration supports the idea, and that it worked recently with retired Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller to create a permanent commission.

But Gillison said that his idea of an independent PAC wouldn't differ much from the current one. It would still lack enforcement power, something Mayor Nutter said is an impractical expectation of an advisory commission.

"You cannot have that organization, or some other organization, actually giving out discipline to these police officers or any other public employees," Nutter said, adding that the PAC is functioning as he always expected it to.

"They have to be subject to the people that they work for. The police officers work for the police commissioner."

Meanwhile, other cities have given their police boards more power to recommend discipline.

Chicago, for instance, has an Independent Police Review Authority that has the power to recommend disciplinary actions, which can be ignored only if the police commissioner can successfully refute the original complaint.

"If we could do something like Chicago . . . that is a step in the right direction," Coard said, adding that the local Fraternal Order of Police union's arbitration system also gets in the way of the PAC. "The problem is, people see stuff like the police-advisory commission and they think that something is being done, and nothing is being done."

Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.

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